Global Conversation with Rochelle Cameron, CEO, Philadelphia International Airport

Rochelle (“Chellie”) L. Cameron became Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia International Airport in January 2016. As CEO, Ms. Cameron serves as the city's chief aviation representative in local, state, national, and international affairs. She is responsible for directing the planning, development, and administration of all activities of the city's Division of Aviation, including both Philadelphia International Airport and Northeast Philadelphia Airport. She also oversees the management of about 800 airport personnel.

Interview conducted by Will Becker on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association

Could you elaborate a bit about your current role as CEO of the City of Philadelphia’s Division of Aviation?

Well, to start, we are a city-owned and operated airport, and the airport is actually aligned under the Commerce Department. It’s a symbiotic relationship because the Commerce Director is always looking for new ways to increase business and look outside the city. We work in the same light in a sense, as the airport is a regional airport, and we bring together people from all over the world.

My role as CEO is that we operate and maintain both Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), as well as the Philadelphia Northeast Airport. The Northeast Airport is interesting – it’s a reliever airport and takes some of the corporate and general aviation traffic away from the International Airport. It really helps to make operations better in both places.

At PHL, we serve more than 80,000 people every single day, so it’s kind of like throwing a party for 80,000 of your friends every day and trying to make sure that they’re happy. It takes a real village to make that happen; it’s a small city.

What did you do before this, and what prepared you for this role?

I went to Notre Dame on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and I am grateful for that opportunity every day. In return, I had to serve for four years on active duty, so I was a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force when I graduated from college and served for about seven years on active duty. I was sent overseas to Turkey and Incirlik Airbase after the first Gulf War, and then ended my Air Force career in Washington, D.C. I loved aviation when I got out of the Air Force and I ultimately took a job opportunity that opened up at Dulles, which introduced me to commercial aviation. Afterwards, I worked for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for almost 13 years and, about seven years ago, was recruited to come to Philadelphia.

Could you tell me a little bit about the new international flights coming to Philadelphia, and the process behind promoting Philadelphia abroad?

We have a brand new foreign flag carrier this year in Aer Lingus, and they are providing much-needed competition on the heavily traveled Dublin route from Philadelphia. American Airlines had already provided great service to Ireland, but we also think that it’s great for passengers to have options. American Airlines has added four new international destinations this year. They started Zurich in March, Budapest and Prague in May, and Mexico City in July.

We've also had a lot of new domestic service this year. American Airlines added eight additional destinations domestically. It’s important because now we're up to 97 domestic destinations, and those flights feed the international service that American serves out of Philadelphia. For example, Philadelphia’s catchment area might not be able to fill a flight to Zurich every day, but when you factor in maybe one person from Madison, Wisconsin and two people from Oklahoma City, and one person from Buffalo, New York a day, it starts to fill the plane and make the international service viable. The fact that they're focused on connecting more and more locations within their network (“the dots”) is really important to us to make sure that we can keep those international flights. We actually have one of the fastest growth rates in terms of available seats of any of the large hub airports in the country for the second quarter in 2018. It's about a 9% increase year-over-year and that's a great place for us to be in.  

Some of the cities we serve non-stop now – Budapest, Prague, and Mexico City – have  a World Heritage connection that will help us attract more international travelers. Additionally, it’s about business connections between those countries in those cities as well. We did an exchange program with the Budapest airport and were able to meet with the American ambassador to Hungary and the Minister of Tourism for the country. It was just great to talk to the other airports about how they approach things and define how we can work together to make sure that people know about all the great things that we have to offer in Philadelphia and vice versa on the Budapest side.

What does Philadelphia being a World Heritage City mean to you, and what have your travels taught about what it means to be a World Heritage City?

I hope that Americans and Philadelphians can continue to become more aware of what it really means to be a World Heritage City because it's very significant. It means that you've got a lot to offer to the world’s history and culture.  When we talk about our ‘World Heritage City’ designation while visiting another country in Asia, or in Europe, or other places in the world, people's faces light up; they get it. It means that you can go to a place and walk away not just having had a good time and some good meals, but you know you will have learned something about the world. The more I learn about different people from all over the world, the more I find we have in common. These kinds of understandings make the world a better place and make it easier to do business – practical things that ultimately give everyone a better appreciation for the incredible diversity that we have in our world. The World Heritage City status is the door opener to make other people want to come to Philadelphia, and the more World Heritage Cities that we can connect with, the better.

What do you think of Philadelphia as a global center, or an international hub?

I actually think that Philadelphia has always been an international place. We have many companies in this region that do business internationally, and we have lots of folks who like to travel.  The airport is a critical piece of our region’s transportation network, and I’m very humbled to be able to play a role in advancing this city and this region by connecting them to the rest of the world. We work hard to make sure we have as many non-stop destinations as possible, as well as competition on existing routes that are highly traveled. When you have the options at the airport located in your back yard, people will travel even more. We are focused on securing nonstop service to an Asian hub, such as Beijing, Tokyo or Seoul.  If we can get nonstop service there, we would of course have a lot of people who would be going to that place to begin with, but then they would have one-stop flying from Philadelphia to just about anywhere in Asia.

We have always had pretty good connectivity into the Caribbean and some of the tourist destinations in Mexico. The Mexico City connection is a big deal for us because it is a big business center for this region. We would also love to have connectivity into more of the Latin America business hubs, like Panama City, Bogota, or Cartagena.

All in all, we want to keep the service that we have and to continue to add options for our travelers.